Over at Philosophy, et cetera, Richard Yetter-Chappell claims that religious belief is not reasonable. Here is Yetter-Chappell’s rationale behind his reasoning:
1. At most, the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments support minimal deism. (I’m not sure what minimal deism is; is it simply the claim that something outside of the universe is causally responsible for either the universe’s existence or for its order? Or is it the stronger claim that some kind of powerful, intelligent agent is causally responsible for either the universe’s existence or its order?)
2. The ontological argument is sophistic, and the modal ontological argument is question-begging.
3. The fact that lots of philosophers of religion think that religious belief is reasonable provides no evidence for thinking that it’s reasonable, because the best explanation for why they’re philosophers of religion in the first place is that they’re antecedently convinced of the claims of theism. Consequently, the best explanation of the fact that they find those arguments compelling is that they already believed them for non-evidential reasons.
4. There are very good reasons to disbelieve in theism, namely the arguments from evil and divine hiddenness. (I take it that Yetter-Chappell thinks that the responses to these arguments don’t discredit these arguments.)
5. The additional claims of historical religions are either not “the kind of thing someone could end up believing as the result of a careful and unbiased assessment of the evidence” (presumably, things like the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement, among others) or are “patently immoral” (like the doctrine of original sin, and the view that honest non-believers deserve eternal damnation).
(Yetter-Chappell doesn’t mention other arguments in the theistic arsenal, like Kant’s moral argument or the argument from miracles. I’m guessing he either doesn’t think they’re worthy of discussion or thinks they convince too few people to mention, or both.)
What is one to make of Yetter-Chappell’s post? A few things, I think:
First, I think that claims that philosophers of religion have made religious belief intellectually respectable are either overstated or false. Just based on anecdotal evidence, I get the impression that a lot of very intelligent philosophers, even ones who are personal acquaintances of Robert Adams, Marilyn Adams, Richard Swinburne, Eleonore Stump, Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, or Dean Zimmerman feel the same way as Yetter-Chappell. It would be good to get some empirical information on whether this is the case.
Second, I must confess that his post unnerves me greatly. This is mainly because I get the impression that Yetter-Chappell is a very good philosopher who is intimately acquainted with much of contemporary philosophy of religion — as well-acquainted with it as many of the people who post on this blog, I’m assuming (is that fair?) — and I don’t think he has the slightest doubt about his views. By contrast, I have nagging, deep doubts about my own religious beliefs. I think this is partly because you can publish lots of secular philosophy in generalist journals while explicitly assuming the truth of naturalism, whereas you can’t publish philosophy that makes explicitly theistic assumptions in generalist journals (or can you? And if you can, under what circumstances can you do so? As a hypothetical? I don’t count those). Perhaps I’m simply neuro-atypical, but I think that would consistently add to the confidence in my convictions. (And this says nothing of the naturalistic assumptions you can make in most conversations with most philosophers.)
Third, I could be wrong, but I think you can run many of his arguments against moral realism. Let me go through them:
1*. What direct arguments are there in favor of moral realism? Michael Smith tries in The Moral Problem; how convincing is this? I gather that David Enoch, Russ Shafer-Landau, and Anita Superson try as well. How many are convinced?
2*. Kant’s deduction of the categorical imperative/Mill’s “proof” is sophistic. (There’s a “gap” in Kant’s deduction and Mill’s proof trades on an equivocation within “x is desirable” between “x is something that one can desire” and “x is something that one ought to desire”.)
3*. The fact that most normative ethicists and meta-ethicists (56.4%) are moral realists doesn’t give any evidence in favor of moral realism, because those scholars became ethicists because they were antecedently convinced of the truth of moral realism.
4*. There are very good reasons to disbelieve moral realism, such as Mackie’s argument from queerness and Harman’s point that you don’t need to invoke moral facts to explain anything about our behavior, attitudes, moral knowledge, etc. Indeed, this world is just the kind of world you would expect to see if our moral beliefs were the product of acculturation and evolutionary pressures.
5.* Most of the particular ethical beliefs that philosophers, and the public at large, have are not so much the result of careful study of evidence (few people look deeply into the evidence (sociological, psychological, economic, political scientific, etc.; nor are they the result of the application of a particular normative theory to cases), but rather because those beliefs are the ones their colleagues share, etc.
Even if one accepts the above parallels, though, I’m not sure what they show. I’m guessing you can easily accept all of 1-5 while denying 1*-5*, but I find it difficult to do so, personally. If you agree with me that there are at least some parallels between moral realism and theism, why do you think moral realism is so much more respectable than theism? (Assuming it is.)
[note: this blogpost collects some scattered thoughts I hope to organize in article form sooner rather than later, for my British Academy project on religious social epistemology, see here]
There is an ongoing debate what we should do when we are confronted with disagreement with an epistemic peer; someone who is as knowledgeable and intellectually virtuous in the domain in question. Should we revise our beliefs (conciliationism), or not engage in any doxastic revision (steadfastness)? Epistemologists aim to settle this question in a principled way, hoping general principles like conciliationism and steadfastness can offer a solution not only for the toy examples that are being invoked, but also for real-world cases that we care passionately about, such as scientific, religious, political and philosophical disagreements. However, such cases have proven to be a hard nut to crack. A referee once commented on a paper I submitted on epistemic peer disagreement in science that the notion of epistemic peer in scientific practice was useless. S/he said “It works for simple cases like two spectators who disagree on which horse finished first, but when it comes to two scientists who disagree whether a fossil is a Homo floresiensis or Homo sapiens, the notion is just utterly useless.”
1. I am less than h happy.
2. Necessarily, God can make me happy to at least degree h.
3. Necessarily, if God creates me, it is overall better if he makes me at least h happy.
4. /:. In every world in which I exist it is obligatory that God makes me at least h happy. 2,3
5. /:. In every world in which I exist, God makes me at least h happy. 2,3, 4
6. /:. God did not create me. 1,5
7. /:. God does not exist. 6
(1) is a contingent fact. (2) is a near-trivial modal truth. (3) doesn’t need much argument, and I leave it as an exercise. Premise (4) follows from the fact that it is better if God creates me at least h happy. Premise (5) follows from the fact that God always does what he is morally required to do. The rest just falls out straightforwardly.
(I thought some Prosblogion folks may find this essay interesting, because it touches on and connects with several interesting philosophical and metaphilosophical issues, and also some interesting issues about the role of faith in the religious life. I don’t mention faith in the essay: that’s one of the “connected” issues that isn’t actually touched on. But it’s interesting to me to see how some theists can be very disturbed at the suggestion that they don’t know that God exists, while others shrug it off with some thought along the lines of “Well, that’s what faith is for.”)
I know many people who claim to know whether God exists. In each case (individually), I suspect they’re wrong about their having such knowledge. In fact, I suspect that they are all wrong. That is, I suspect that nobody that I know knows whether God exists. So I suspect that delusions of knowledge about this matter run rampant among folks I know. Not a particularly nice suspicion to harbor, I realize. But I thought I’d express and explain that suspicion here, describing my grounds for it.
“What is the first business of philosophy? To part with
self-conceit. For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn what he thinks
that he already knows.” –Epictetus, Discourses, Book 2, Ch. 17.
[cross-posted at CERC] At HECC and CERC we study religion–its cultural evolution and transmission, its psychology, its
emotional and cognitive makeup and more. But you might think that studies about
how the plebs experience religion are fundamentally different than studies
about how sophisticated academics experience religion. In a recent paper Paul Draper and I diagnose bias not just in
religious persons but in philosophers of religion. If the guiding hypotheses of
CERC about the psycho-social purposes of religion are accurate, extensive
biases even amongst elite thinkers are what we would expect.
Before knickers get in twists, we are not arguing in this
work that religious belief is epistemically unwarranted or unjustified. We
aren’t crafting a debunking argument based on spurious causal sources of religious
belief. Matter of fact religion is a sine qua non of modern life. It would be
not only silly but wrongheaded to attempt to banish religion from the world.
Religiosity covaries with lots of positive outcomes. (You wouldn’t want to live
longer and be healthier, would you?) In the words of the Doobie Brothers,
internal and external forms of religiosity are alright with me. More than
alright. Besides, folks in and out of the phil religion biz have narrowed the
meaning of ‘religion’ leaving out intriguing options like Ietsism
and the religious implications of the Simulation
Argument. At least those who want to “commit it then to the
flames”, a la Hume in the immortal conclusion to his Enquiry Concerning Human
Understanding, should first get straight one what they want to burn.
The Mountain-Pacific Region of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) is now accepting papers for its annual conference to be held March 8-9 at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We welcome both Christians and non-Christians as presenters, commentators, and participants. Although we are particularly interested in papers on the intersection of faith and reason (e.g., religious epistemology, the concept of faith, the reasonableness of faith, or arguments for God’s existence), papers on any topic of philosophical interest will be considered.
Submissions should include a paper that is 3,000 words or less and is prepared for blind review in an accessible format (e.g., .doc, .docx, or .pdf). In addition to the paper, submissions should include a cover letter that includes your name, institutional affiliation, email address, paper title, and an abstract of 200 words or less. Submissions should be sent to Jonathan Spelman at (jonathan.spelman [at] colorado.edu) on or before January 6, 2013. Note that there is a $500 award for the best graduate student paper!
For additional information about the conference, please contact either Jonathan Spelman at or Ashley Taylor at, or visit the conference website:
Let me be clear from the outset: the majority of work in analytic philosophy of religion (PoR) does not aim to proselytize, but is concerned with fairly technical topics, such as the possibility of creaturely free will in heaven, the compatibility of specific divine attributes, or the evidential problem of evil. But some portion of PoR is clearly aimed at convincing the reader that religious belief (usually, Christianity, given the demographics of academic philosophy) is reasonable. To this end, philosophers construct sophisticated arguments, for instance, to show that religious belief does not require evidence, that religious faith is also, or even primarily, a matter of practical rationality, that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of theism, etc. Plantinga and Swinburne are good examples. Such philosophy of religion can be plausibly regarded as a form of proselytism–I’m using a wider term than the usual “apologetics”, as apologetics is the more narrow notion of systematically defending a particular religious position. But I’m not entirely happy with the term proselytism either, since I also think that some of this PoR is aimed at those people who have religious faith, but who are wavering, for instance, because others tell them their faith is not rational. So I’ll settle for proselytism cum apologetics as a not entirely satisfactory term for this type of PoR. Is it acceptable for philosophers of religion to engage in proselytism/apologetics?
It’s hard to come up with reasonable priors for such theses as Naturalism and Theism and with reasonable conditional probabilities for such evidence as Evils We Can’t Theodicize on Theism. But we can sometimes come up with reasonable comparisons of the strength of evidence. And this might lead to some helpful non-numerical probabilistic reasoning.
For instance, we might have the judgment that the evidential strength of the Problem of Evil (POE) as an argument against theism is no greater than the evidential strength of the Finetuning Argument (FTA) as an argument for theism. Two thoughts in support of this: (1) the low-entropy initial state of the our universe has been estimated by Penrose to be utterly incredibly unlikely (my paraphrase of his 10^(-10^123)) and some of the other anthropic coincidences come with what are intuitively extremely narrow ranges; the theist has proposed various theodicies–they may not be convincing, but it seems reasonable to say that the probability that together they answer the POE is no less, indeed quite a bit greater, than the incredibly tiny probabilities that FTA claims; (2) just as thinking about naturalistic multiverse hypotheses significantly decreases the force of FTA, thinking about theistic multiverse hypotheses significantly decreases the force of POE (cf. Turner and Kraay’s work); (3) just as in the case of FTA we might worry that there is some nomic explanation of the coincidences that we haven’t found, so too in the case of POE we have sceptical theism.
This means that the theist can simply sacrifice FTA to POE: the FTA either balances POE or outbalances POE (I think the latter, because of point (1) above).
Then the theist has a nice supply of other strong and serious theistic arguments, such as the cosmological, non-FTA design arguments (e.g., Swinburne’s laws of nature argument), ontological, religious experience, moral epistemology (theism has a much better explanation than naturalism of how we can know objective moral truths), etc. The atheist has a few other arguments, too, but I think they are not very impressive (the Stone and other issues for the Chisholming of divine attributes, Grim-style worries about omniscience and infinity, worries about the interaction between the physical and nonphysical). At least once POE is completely out of the picture, even if FTA is lost, the theist can make a very strong case.
I’ve just re-read Paul Griffiths’ and John Wilkins’ inspiring paper on evolutionary debunking arguments (EDAs) for religion (it is a very influential paper on cognitive science of religion and evolutionary debunking, despite its not having appeared in print yet) for a chapter of a monograph I’m writing. Using Guy Kahane’s debunking genealogical framework, they argue that natural selection is an off-track process, i.e., one that does not track truth: it produces beliefs in a manner that is insensitive to the truth those beliefs. From this, they conclude that the beliefs that are the outputs of evolved systems are unjustified.
Causal premise. S’s belief that p is explained by X
Epistemic premise. X is an off-track process
Therefore, S’s belief that p is unjustified
When we apply this argument in a generalized manner, where X stands for “natural selection”, this looks like a bad strategy for the naturalist – ultimately, it leads to self-defeat in a Plantingesque manner that most proponents of EDAs would like to avoid. G&W’s position is more subtle: they don’t want to treat truth-tracking and fitness-tracking as competing explanations (as Plantinga seems to do), instead, they argue that fitness-tracking and truth-tracking operate at different explanatory levels. In many cases, tracking truth *is* the best way of tracking fitness, especially given (1) that cognition is costly (brains consume a lot of energy), (2) your beliefs influences how you will behave, (3) your behavior influences your fitness. They propose “Milvian bridges”, which link truth-tracking and fitness-tracking, in order to salvage commonsense and scientific beliefs.